How Your Mobile Phone Can Spy On You, Thanks to the FBI


The FBI is capable of tracking your cell phone, pinpointing your location, sending you targeted messages, and even reconfiguring the characteristics of your phone. The details of FBI spying, the power of intrusive 21st century government technology, and the extent of state collusion with telecommunications companies have all been exposed in a recent legal battle.

The controversial case involves Daniel David Rigmaiden, accused of stealing over $4 million from the IRS through identity theft.  Freedom of Information Act documents revealed that Verizon Wireless assisted federal agents in using impressive new technologies to track, locate, and remotely change the state of Rigmaiden’s air card, a wireless device that connects to the Internet. What’s more, some charge that these actions were taken without the appropriate judicial oversight. At stake are the democratic values which seek to protect individual rights and privacy from unchecked state power.

The secretive technology is generically known as a "stingray" and it essentially simulates or mimics a cell tower to trick nearby mobile and wireless devices to connect to it instead of a legitimate phone tower. While the core technology is over 20 years old, it has grown sleeker and more refined. 

The details of the operation include technology to interfere with legit phone frequencies, several surreptitious FBI phone calls, ID number recording, conversation monitoring, a stake out, and Verizon’s supportive action in covertly reprogramming the air card.  Documents also cite the use of a second handheld device called a "KingFish," which allowed agents to walk through Rigmaiden’s building complex and zero in on his particular apartment 1122 before engaging in a short foot chase and arresting him.

This may sound like a scene in the latest Jason Bourne spy thriller, but there are some serious implications in this case that should give us all pause.

First, honing in on a suspect's location requires the stingray to broadcast a signal that will attract any air cards, phones or wireless devices in a specific radius; essentially, the technique sends signals through the walls of "every home in the neighborhood". The government asserts that they take pains to delete all information unrelated to their targets, but they also told us that there would be WMDs in Iraq. Even the most law-abiding citizen might be the inadvertent victim of government electronic privacy intrusion.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have both filed briefs and argued that the stingray operation was improper for yet another reason. They assert that government agents, in this and other cases, applied for a standard "pen register" (basic call surveillance), without explicitly stating its intended use of a stingray, to mislead and circumvent the court’s oversight authority.